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What Would Amazon’s Arrival in Sunset Park Mean for Locals — and City Taxpayers?

Sunday afternoon, as festivalgoers on Sunset Park’s Fifth Avenue maneuvered baby strollers and herds of sugar-addled kids to queue up for tamales verdes, tostadas, and dripping glasses of agua fresca, volunteers from the local activist group Uprose fanned out across the crowds. For Uprose activist Joanne Zhao and nine other leafleteers, it was an opportunity to engage locals of all backgrounds in an urgent conversation about the future of the neighborhood as it prepares to take on a possible new opponent: Amazon.

Ever since the online retail behemoth announced this month that it was seeking a location for a second headquarters — and asking cities to “bid” for its presence — Sunset Park’s waterfront has been floated as a potential contender. The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) has already begun the formal process of crafting a proposal, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce president Andrew Hoan have launched a “Brooklyn Prime” campaign to land the prize for their borough. One likely site: Industry City, a 6.5 million–square-foot industrial complex that Jamestown Properties, the real estate company behind Manhattan’s posh Chelsea Market, has worked to make into a poster project for developers working to rebrand Brooklyn’s southwestern shoreline as “Innovation Coast.”

For many in Sunset Park, the prospect is both disturbing and amusing. “It’s just crazy to think that such a huge company would come here, to Sunset Park,” says Zhao, giving a short laugh. “This is a neighborhood of blue-collar people, people of color, marginalized people. This isn’t Silicon Valley.” Uprose executive director Elizabeth Yeampierre says that the Amazon bid would be just the latest in a long line of uninvited changes to the community: “They’re trying to create Williamsburg in Sunset Park. They’re not involving the community in any of these decisions.”

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For Jamestown and its supporters, though, there’s nothing laughable about the idea. “As the southern anchor of Brooklyn’s Innovation Coast, Industry City is certainly enthused by the opportunity to support the city’s effort to attract Amazon’s HQ2 to New York City,” says Lee Silberstein, a spokesperson for Industry City. “And as home to a growing number of innovation economy businesses, Industry City could offer a lot to Amazon.” Already, Industry City provides an array of amenities for its tenants, he notes, including an in-house athletic club and “dedicated [internet] bandwidth at the fastest speeds in NYC.” Its vendors include boutique chocolate and wine shops, art galleries, pop-ups, and a Chelsea Market–style food court complete with “the world’s first avocado bar.

For all the criticism that Industry City caters to out-of-neighborhood crowds, its developer insists that it has done tangible good for Sunset Park. “From furniture to fashion, food to home goods, there’s more manufacturing happening at the property now than there has been in decades,” says Andrew Kimball, CEO of Industry City. According to Kimball, Industry City currently employs about 6,000 people, up from the roughly 1,900 employed at the time the developers moved in. According to Kimball, about 50 percent of these workers are from Sunset Park and the surrounding area.

Doug Turetsky of the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York says these claims by Industry City are difficult to verify. “None of our documentation shows whether significant job growth took place as a result of Industry City,” Turetsky says. “It’s hard to tell if the company brought anything to the neighborhood — besides $25 coffee.”

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Projecting the impact on the neighborhood of Industry City, as well as of a hypothetical Amazon headquarters there, is also problematic. In its call for proposals, Amazon predicted its new HQ would bring about 50,000 jobs to its new locale, but this prospect raises many questions. “Depending upon the mix of jobs — and Amazon’s willingness to hire locally — the 50,000 new jobs could be a boon or a bust for the community, particularly many of the current residents,” says Turetsky, adding the project “could change the complexion of the neighborhood, literally and figuratively.”

This is precisely what worries Zhao. “Developers always like to say they’re bringing jobs, but the question is, what kind of jobs are they bringing? Who gets those jobs?” she asks. She also worries that rising prices around the development could force residents out of the area. Since Jamestown Properties took over Industry City in 2013, Sunset Park rents have risen 13 percent, and Zhao says she feels her neighborhood shifting.

“It’s hard to watch the place you grew up change,” says Zhao. “A lot of my old neighbors, who were people of color, are gone — and there are new, white neighbors moving in from outside the neighborhood.” Zhao’s own family’s business was forced to shutter, too, after being priced out of its rental space.

Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a national nonprofit that tracks and promotes transparency in economic development deals, cautions New Yorkers to be aware of the invisible costs of bringing in mega companies like Amazon. To lure in businesses of this size, cities will often offer major tax breaks and other subsidies, allowing businesses to keep millions that would otherwise go toward funding public services.

“These deals are almost always made in secret, often through unelected bodies, meaning most people never know all the concessions being made to these big companies,” says LeRoy. And while it’s not known yet what kind of deal New York City might offer Amazon, its track record is not promising. Since 1980, the city has made 80,976 subsidy deals for a total value of $26.3 billion, according to Good Jobs First’s Subsidy Tracker. “New York has made more deals for more dollars than almost any other state,” says LeRoy.

Anthony Hogrebe of the New York City Economic Development Corporation insists that the city has no interest in joining a “race to the bottom.” While it’s “too early to get specific” about what kind of deals might be struck, he says, New York City’s selling point was never going to be its affordability; rather, the city’s bid will “emphasize other advantages, including our diverse economy and our world-class workforce.”

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Currently, NYCEDC is accepting proposals from all five boroughs but will eventually narrow down the city’s bid to focus on “one, or a select few” sites, according to Hogrebe. He declined to comment on any specific sites under consideration, but added that “once we have a better sense of what sites we’re considering, then we will have a conversation about community concerns,” including the potential impact on jobs, cost of living, and “workforce development” — the opportunity for local community members to gain the skills needed to get hired at incoming companies like Amazon.

For her part, Zhao isn’t waiting for city officials to come calling. “We need people to be aware so they can make their voices heard before the decision is made without them,” she says. On Sunday, her multilingual pamphlets spelled out a very clear message: “DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE.” The text below warned readers of Industry City’s profit-driven goals to create “a playground for the privileged at the expense of a working-class community.”

Down the street from the corner where Zhao handed out the last of her flyers, fifteen-year-old Zuriel Garcia sat behind a folding table spread with handmade beaded jewelry from Mexico. His father, Carlos, stood a few yards down the sidewalk, gesturing to passersby to take a look. Zuriel was born and raised in Sunset Park; his father moved here from Mexico more than twenty years ago. The Garcia family began a small storefront operation about three months ago, said the younger Garcia, to supplement Carlos’s salary as a motorcycle mechanic.

When shown the Uprose flyer about Industry City, the two men shrugged. The younger Garcia has shopped at the complex once, an experience he described with ambivalence. “I just walked around, looked around,” he recalled. “I bought a drink, something with honey in it. It was OK.” Apart from this underwhelming excursion, the teen says he rarely thinks about the waterfront development.

Carlos was also surprised by the urgency of Zhao’s flyer. While he agreed the cost of living is going up — part of the reason he started a second business — he said he isn’t particularly worried about Industry City.

“This is the first time I have seen anyone talking about it,” he said. “I don’t really know if they’re changing anything for us.” He added with a smile, “I just keep working. I get by. I mean, I can’t complain.”

For Zhao, this kind of indifference is worrisome. “These companies are very strategic,” she warns. “We need to stay vigilant.”

 

 

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Hold a Steady Stein, Try Blind Wine Tasting, and Toast New York State This Weekend

Battle of the Halls Oktoberfest Celebration, Clinton Hall and West End Hall, 90 Washington Street and 2756 Broadway, Friday and Saturday, 6 p.m. till late both days

Grab a stein and try to outlast the competition at these sister beer halls, which are both holding competitions this weekend. German beers like Radeberger, Weihenstephan, and Hofbrau will be available, with prize giveaways for the winners. There’s also a cornhole championship taking place at Clinton Hall on Saturday for those of us too distraught to watch our fantasy team any longer.

Claire Ptak Ice Cream Party and Brunch, Achilles Heel and Estela, 180 West Street, Brooklyn and 47 East Houston Street, Friday and Saturday, 6 p.m. until late/11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. brunch

London based baker and food writer Claire Ptak is flying across the pond for a weekend collaboration with locals Andrew Tarlow and Ignacio Mattos. On Friday, Ptak will host an ice cream party (with flavors like fig leaf and roasted quince) and will sign copies of her latest book The Violet Bakery Cookbook. Specialty cocktails will also be available, along with a live DJ and dance party. On Saturday, Ptak heads to Soho for a brunch collaboration at Estela, focusing on baked goods like bacon and egg buttermilk biscuits, cinnamon buns, and chocolate sandwich cookies with parsnip ice cream. Guests can secure a reservation or walk in for both events.

Wine on Wheels, Papillon Bistro, 22 East 54th Street, Friday, 6:30 to 9 p.m.

Improve your sense of taste this weekend as sommelier Yannick Benjamin and Wheeling Forward, an organization that supports the disabled, will host the second annual Wine on Wheels consumer blind tasting challenge. With a focus on the casual wine drinker, Benjamin and fellow sommeliers will offer over 20 wines representing the most common varietals as well as give tips on insider tasting techniques. The guest who is the most accurate upon completion of the blind tasting will receive a case of wine. Tickets are $55 and can be secured here.

NYC Craft Coffee Festival, Villain, 50 North 3rd Street, Brooklyn, Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Sample over twenty different coffees from specialty roasters like Irving Farm and get to know more about what makes up your favorite morning blend. Additional coffee shops scheduled to participate include Sweetleaf and Cafe Grumpy, while plenty of pastries from Underwest Donuts and others are also included in the cost of a ticket. Secure one for $35 here.

Cheers NY, Industry City, 37th Street and 2nd Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, Saturday and Sunday, 12 to 8 p.m/12 to 3 p.m.

Learn more about the local cheeses, wines, and beers that are being made in New York State at this two day festival, which features an additional marketplace stocked full of Brooklyn’s best menu items. There’s also an outdoor biergarten and games section. Ticket options start at $10 and can be reserved here.

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SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY

There’s no better brunch drink than a good bloody mary — the mimosa doesn’t stand a chance against its spicy, acidic complexity. Fans of the tomato-juice-based cocktail flock today to the second annual Brooklyn Bloody Mary Festival to crown the best one of the borough. Last year’s champ belonged to Lucky Luna, a Mexican-Taiwanese spot in Greenpoint whose Asian-inflected entry included sriracha, kimchi, and wasabi nori. Lucky Luna will defend its title against competitors that include Pok Pok, whose fiery house version incorporates Thai chiles, and Catfish, whose offering last year was a Frankensteinian creation that came with shrimp and crab meat. Temper all that vodka with lunch from Delaney’s BBQ, which serves Central Texas–style brisket, pork, and more, and burn off some calories by dancing to the salsa-meets–West Africa rhythms of the Afro-Latineers.

Sun., April 12, 1 p.m., 2015

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LOOK TO THE EAST

In February, Alexander Wang hosted a Fashion Week show in Brooklyn, and it caused a big uproar with insiders who still see Manhattan as the event’s official host. But — who knows? — everyone’s favorite outer borough might just soon become the new fashion capital: Fashion Week Brooklyn, a biannual international collection show that launched in 2006, seems to
be picking up steam and now features international designers and brands as well as local ones. The four-day event includes shows by Iliana Quander (New York), Marita Huurinainen (Finland), and Lina Teixeria (Florida).

Sat., March 15, noon; Sun., March 16, noon, 2014

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Red Hook’s El Olomega Wins Top Vendy

This weekend the 2013 Vendy Awards, known as “the Oscars of street food,” corralled 28 trucks and tables into Sunset Park’s Industry City for a marathon of gormandizing before naming New York City’s best mobile cuisine purveyor.

Proceeds, as custom, went toward the Street Vendor Project for vendor’s rights, but this year the ceremony also honored the 55 “Hero” trucks that came to the aid of Sandy victims by supplying and delivering hot meals. And what better way to celebrate the end of a food shortage than with sprawling super-abundance?

The cook-off featured start-ups from four boroughs and New Jersey, and the vendors served extra-large portions that it seems disingenuous to call “samples.” One thousand-plus guests and six judges, including Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver and the Food Network’s Justin Warner, chowed down throughout the day before voting on winners.

Janet and Marcos Lainez of El Olomega drove off with top honors; the non-flashy contenders have been doling their signature Salvadoran papusas–a pork and cheese-filled griddlecake with fuscia pickled cabbage and sour cream on the side–to Red Hook residents for 25 years, becoming a weekend standard for hungry spectators at their station next to the soccer fields. “I’m still digesting it,” said Marcos Lainez after an emotional win.

Luke’s Lobster, which maintained the longest and most perpetual line of the day, was bestowed the People’s Taste award. Itizy Ice Cream took Best Dessert, and the lively Nuchas crew snagged Rookie of the Year with their fresh-baked Argentine empanadas.

This was the first year The Vendys were held at the gritty-but-charming Industry City, a historic warehouse conglomerate now hawked as studio space to Brooklyn artists. It was an easier hike than the previous location on Governor’s Island but still off the beaten path, providing a luxurious amount of space, as well as ample seating in which to enjoy a beer between extended gorge-sessions.